Christmas is a wonderful time to give the gift of music. Learning to play the piano is a skill and a talent that can be developed and will last the student a lifetime.
How do you choose between an acoustic piano and a digital one? I hope that this blog post will help answer that question and get the student in your home set on the right path to becoming a great musician.
Digital vs. Acoustic
Digital pianos are electronic devices that use sound chips and speakers to reproduce piano sounds. Some may have eight octaves, but they may have only six, or even as few as four. Four octaves will allow you to play simple tunes, but six or more octaves will be required if you want to study music seriously.
The tone and touch of an acoustic piano is usually far superior to a digital piano. Acoustic pianos have a large number of black and white keys, spanning up to eight octaves. Acoustic pianos create a natural reverberation in the room where they are played.
Most digital pianos have a MIDI output which allows you to connect them to a computer via an inexpensive interface, which allows you to record and edit your playing and add additional parts, as well as control other instruments.
Let’s Look at the Differences
Digital pianos are electronic devices that are designed to sound like an acoustic piano. They have no strings and no soundboard. Some have springs instead of hammers. Instead, they have electronic circuits and speakers.
Here are some of the features which may make a digital piano an attractive alternative:
- Different types of piano sounds, such as harpsichord, organ and more.
- Instrument sounds such as strings, flute, and percussion.
- Built-in rhythm capabilities to accompany playing.
- The ability to record performances and interact with other electronic music (MIDI).
- Never needs tuning.
- Headphones are available for private practice.
- Portability and low weight.
- If you have a reasonably modern computer you can also run one or more ‘software synthesizers’, where your computer generates the sound and you use the digital piano as a silent master keyboard, which offers an attractive and relatively inexpensive ($100-$200) upgrade path for unconvincing sounding digital pianos.
Consider Your Needs
With some digital pianos, you can learn a piece by playing lit keys rather than reading music, which is useful for beginners and inexperienced piano enthusiasts. However, after the novelty wears off, you may want more from the instrument, and most digital pianos cannot offer it. A majority of electronic instruments lack the tone and touch of an acoustic piano, as well as the feel and the ability to convey subtle emotion and feeling. Remember that an acoustic piano has strings and hammers, while a digital piano doesn’t. Having actual strings means that there are thousands of things in an acoustic piano (such as sympathetically vibrating strings) that are difficult to reproduce convincingly on a digital piano.
Think About the Future
Realize that beyond a certain level, some piano teachers will not teach students who have learned on anything other than an acoustic piano. Digital pianos are frequently counterproductive when it comes to technique and dynamic performance. These skills cannot be practiced on a cheap digital keyboard and later applied to a real piano.
What I mean by this is, when using a digital piano that does not have weighted keys, the student never builds the muscles in their hands and fingers. I find it very frustrating as a teacher to have a student come in and try to play a piece on my piano after practicing on their digital keyboard. They think they can just touch the keys and my piano will play. That doesn’t work. The student’s fingers do need a workout.
The acoustic piano also has pedals. If the student’s digital piano doesn’t have a pedal, then that skill will not be learned properly.
With the digital keyboard that is not weighted, the student will not be able to learn how to play soft or loud. The digital piano always plays at the same level.
Don’t Forget About Investment Value
Consider that an acoustic piano will hold its value far better than a digital unit. An acoustic piano can last 100 years or more, while a digital piano may be obsolete in 5 years. Just like an outdated computer, an outdated keyboard is often difficult to sell.
The technology has improved so much so now; the modern digital pianos by major manufactures, especially the companies making acoustic pianos, are making Graded Hammer action keys with natural weights and without a spring mechanism. These digital pianos really have the same action as an acoustic piano. Top digital pianos use the same wooden keys action, hence they are in fact better sounding than most upright acoustic pianos. Today we have digital pianos, for which the piano sound is sampled from top concert grand pianos with all 88-keys sampled at different velocity levels. Those pianos incorporate similar wooden keys and the same key length up to the balancing pins of a concert grand piano.
Make an Informed Choice
Make an informed choice, regardless of which you choose. It is often more difficult to choose a digital piano than an acoustic piano. Top priority should be given for the tone and the touch. So, a good quality digital piano cannot be purchased very cheaply, because to produce the proper piano action is a costly process for any manufacturer. Although digital pianos may not have a span as much as an acoustic piano, a good digital piano can work for easy 20 years or more.
I think a digital piano with weighted keys is the way to go if you are thinking about lessons for the musician in your home. Once you know that the student is serious about learning to play the piano and has the time to practice, then upgrade to an acoustic piano.